KRAVITZ: In today's pass-happy NFL, run-pass balance isn't paramount…but it would help the Colts

Colts WR T.Y. Hilton was injured and left the field in the first quarter but returned to the Colts game with Houston, Sunday Sept. 30, 2018. (Image courtesy Colts/Twitter)
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KRAVITZ: In today's pass-happy NFL, run-pass balance isn't paramount…but it would help the Colts

Frank Reich wants offensive balance, or at least something that looks a little bit like offensive balance. The fans, they want to see the Colts run the football effectively, something they haven't done in what feels a decade or more. As you know by now, Andrew Luck just came off a pair of games – four days apart – when he attempted 121 passes while the running attack continued to languish at 29th in the league.

Here's my question…

Is balance really a big deal in today's pass-happy NFL?

In the old days, every offensive coordinator made an effort to equalize the number of pass and run attempts, figuring an effective running game would offset the pass rush and make defenders peak into the backfield before reacting to the pass.

Today, that feels like ancient thinking.

Yes, it would be nice to run, especially in short-yardage situations. Yes, it would be nice to stay ahead of the chains, rip off four-five yards on first down while giving the offense and chance to dive deep into the playbook. It also takes pressure off the offensive line, especially when you're asked to pass protect 62 times, as was the case in New England. Running, physicality, they matter some, even in this modern-day game.

Just not a lot. Not anymore. Not in today's NFL.

We are a bit more than a month into this season, and already, quarterbacks are on a pace to finish with all-time highs in passes thrown, passing yards per game, touchdown passes and highest passer rating. In Week Four alone, four quarterbacks threw 50 or more times and seven others threw 40-plus times. The game has become a glorified 7-on-7 drill, the defenses having been thoroughly defanged by rules changes and alterations in the way the game is called.

In an effort to make the point, here are the five best rushing teams in the NFL through five games: Cleveland (2-2-1), Denver (2-3), San Francisco (1-4), Dallas (2-3) and the Jets (2-3). If that doesn't say something about the relevance of the running game, I don't know what does.

The top five passing teams? The Rams (5-0), Minnesota (2-2-1), Pittsburgh (2-2-1), New Orleans (4-1) and one outlier, Oakland (1-4).

This is the way the game is played now, especially this year, when we figure to see all kinds of full-season records to fall. There was a beautiful moment Monday night when Purdue's Drew Brees broke Peyton Manning's passing yards mark, but let's be clear: Passing numbers have been devalued in recent years. That's not meant to diminish Brees' accomplishment – he's an extraordinary quarterback who overcame a potentially career-ending shoulder surgery – but the numbers now are going to fall like dominos, one after another, one passing category after another.

Meanwhile, the average for rushing attempts (25) is the lowest since they started keeping statistics on those kinds of things.

All of this began with former Colts president Bill Polian who, after watching his receivers get mugged all over the field in the Jan. 2014 playoff loss to the Patriots, led the charge to change the way illegal-contact penalties are called. Soon thereafter, the game opened up. Incredibly, the rule was a direct shot at the Patriots, and yet, they remained and still remain as dominant as ever. Of course.

More recently, the league instituted the helmet rule, which is being called on defensive players and rarely called on offensive players because…of course, it's an offensive league.

Then there's the rules that are designed to protect the quarterback, rules that have been interpreted and re-interpreted a thousand different ways to the point where nobody knows what's legal and what's not. Last week against New England, Andrew Luck was gang-sacked by at least three Patriots, who brought the full weight of their being upon Luck. As Clay Matthews could attest, that's a penalty. Except that particular week, it wasn't. No whistle. Play on.

Here's what former official and current TV analyst Mike Pereira tweeted shortly after the sack:

"The hit on Luck would have been a foul in the first three weeks of the season. The defender did try to break his fall at the end. I am happy that this is not being called. The conference call with the competition committee has made a difference.''

Oh.

So we're just making it up as we go along, eh?

There's no denying the Colts need something of a run game. We're not talking about 25 carries a game for 100 yards or anything outlandish – well, outlandish for the Colts. They just need something, need to be able to count upon the run game in short-yardage situations and late in games, when they're trying to run clock and hold a lead. A team can't be completely one-dimensional, as the Colts have been most of this season.

At the very least, they have to take some of the pressure off Luck, who has been spectacular the last two games, both of them losses. He threw the ball 121 times in two games, four days apart, which is ridiculous. Some of it stemmed from the fact the Houston game went into overtime and the Colts were playing catch-up against New England, but those pass-attempt numbers are beyond the pale – especially for a player coming off a major shoulder injury and surgery.

"Yeah, I mean, it's killing me to have to throw it this much,'' Frank Reich said earlier this week. "I know you can't sustain this. The story doesn't end well when you have to sustain this level of throwing. Maybe there are exceptions, maybe there are exceptions to that, but I've learned that in my past. We are doing everything we can do to try to balance that out.

"That being said, we get in a game, we are going to play to win. When you get behind early – and then of course last week was an overtime game, so you're playing 70 minutes rather than 60. So that has to be factored in there as well. But we need to be more balanced, for sure.''

The Colts could get some help this weekend against the New York Jets in East Rutherford. Marlon Mack is close to returning and Robert Turbin figures to see more action than he did in his first game back against New England.

On the flip side, though, they've lost right guard Matt Slauson for the season with a serious back injury, a big loss considering how steady he had been. Expect rookie Braden Smith to take that spot. Denzelle Good, who missed a week after the tragic loss of his brother, figures to slot in at right tackle. And there may finally be an Anthony Castonzo sighting back at left tackle; he was an emergency lineman last week in Foxboro and will have had 10 days to recover before the Jets game.

Balanced? No. More balanced? Absolutely. The Colts have only run the ball effectively one time this year, going for 104 yards on 28 carries against Washington, not-so-coincidentally the one game they've won this season. The other games, it's been an afterthought, forcing Luck to throw 53, 31, 40 62 and 59 times. At this rate, Luck would break Matthew Stafford's all-time mark (727 pass attempts) that he set with the 2012 Lions. Stafford averaged more than 45 pass attempts per game. Luck is blowing him out of the water, averaging 50.

Can it continue? Sure it can. But the Colts won't win many games that way. Balance doesn't matter the way it used to matter in the old power-football NFL, but a representative running game would take some of the pressure off Luck, maybe keep him in one piece.

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to bkravitz@wthr.com.

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